1. Duke Blue Devils
Everything for Duke next season is hinged on ACC Player of the Year candidates Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard returning to campus and the Blue Devils actually staying healthy for once. Coach K adds another top-tier recruiting haul, headlined by big man Wendell Carter and guard Gary Trent Jr., who should mix with rising sophomore Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden to form one of the country’s toughest rotations.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
The one-and-done reload will take place again in Lexington, as John Calipari says goodbye to one group and ushers in a new wave of bonafide talent. The uniqueness of players like rising sophomore Wenyen Gabriel returning, makes Kentucky’s rookie scoop of Hamidou Diallo, Nick Richards, Quade Green, P.J. Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, all that more intriguing.
3. Louisville Cardinals
Rick Pitino’s squad quietly crept into a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament this past season, as arguably the least discussed top-notch squad in all of college basketball. Like most teams, the Cardinals’ fate next season relies on draft returners and guard Donovan Mitchell’s decision to stay-or-go will be crucial. If he returns, Mitchell will join Quentin Snider , Deng Adel , Jaylen Johnson and Anas Mahmoud, to create a formidable top five on the depth chart.
4. Kansas Jayhawks
As long as Bill Self is Kansas’ head coach and the Jayhawks are churning out Big 12 titles like it’s nothing, there’s no reason to lose faith in the program despite the personnel hits they may take. Losing Naismith Player of the Year Frank Mason III and potential top pick Josh Jackson won’t make life easy but a line-up comprised of Devonte Graham, Landen Lucas, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman and incoming freshman Billy Preston, is more than enough for Self to work with.
5. Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Zags’ run to the program’s first ever Final Four and National Championship game will now be met with immediate fallout, as Mark Few will potentially be losing two seven-footers from his program in Przemek Karnowksi and Zach Collins. While Karnowski leaving Spokane was a known entity, it was Collins’ improved play through the NCAA Tournament which firmly put him in the NBA Draft conversation and leaves his decision unknown. If Collins does come back, he’ll have All-American candidate Nigel Williams-Goss and another strong pool of talent to return to.
6. Villanova Wildcats
Like Bill Self at Kansas, the slow and steady churn of Jay Wright at Villanova will continue, despite saying goodbye to a legendary senior class of Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds. Point guard Jalen Brunson seems ready for his prime-time breakout season in the featured guard spot. Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges will be the glue to hold it all together and forward Eric Paschall is a sleeping giant, waiting to be awakened. This returning Wildcats roster has much more in the tank than early indications may believe.
7. Wichita State Shockers
If the rumors about Wichita State heading to the AAC are true, the regular season may become a bit more grueling for the Shockers but possibly just at the moment that was needed for this program, as they return their most gifted roster since 2013-2014’s legendary 35-1 outfit. The whole gang is back in town in Wichita, headlined by guards Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp, and most importantly, head coach Gregg Marshall is still on campus. With Marshall still running the show, culture should win out for the Shockers, even in a potential conference transition season.
8. Florida Gators
Quickly proving himself as one of the rising young coaching stars in all of college basketball, Mike White has wasted no time in putting his own stamp on the Florida basketball and returning it to the Elite Eight. White now has the task of meshing a group who has already tasted success and bringing them back to the top of the college basketball world. A speedy backcourt led by Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen could severely aid in that development.
9. North Carolina Tar Heels
The reigning National Champions, the Tar Heels have made it to the last game of the season in both of the past two campaigns but their quest for a third straight title run may be a bit more of an uphill battle than the previous ones. It’s not so much what North Carolina returns, as they’ll still have Joel Berry II in Chapel Hill, but how they replace pieces like Justin Jackson, Nate Britt, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks that may define their year. That’s what “daggum winning” will do.
10. West Virginia Mountaineers
The brutal nature of “Press Virginia” will keep on trucking even without beloved seniors Tarik Phillip and Nathan Adrian, who guided the havoc-driven style of play in their own special ways during their stay in Morgantown and will now be passing the torch. Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. are pretty good torch-bearers to have in the backcourt, while Esa Ahmad and Elijah Macon will keep things physical up-front. It should be more of the same for legendary coach Bob Huggins next season.
11. Michigan State Spartans
Athletic freshman superstar Miles Bridges will almost certainly head to the NBA Draft, meaning head coach Tom Izzo’s ability to sway big-time recruits to East Lansing will leave him plugging holes once again. The good news for Izzo is that he still has Cassius Winston, a potential “Monte Morris” type of point guard, who could come out of his shell in year two, as well as sophomore big man Nick Ward, who will be one of the Big Ten’s toughest match-ups next season. Add five-star forward Jaren Jackson to a team who already has two big-time x-factors in Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid and this Michigan State team could be the darkhorse of college basketball next season.
12. Xavier Musketeers
Any projections on Xavier will have to really wait until Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner figure out their next-level plans, as returning both of these guards severely change the outlook of this Musketeers roster. Besides their star duo, Xavier still has some notable pieces across the board, which give Chris Mack the depth and talent to play about 9-10 deep at any moment. Bluiett and Edmond however are the “Sweet Sixteen” to simply “Field of 68” swing though.
13. Arizona Wildcats
Finnish freshman phenom Lauri Markkanen, rising talent Kobi Simmons and senior Kadeem Allen may be leaving Tucson but the cupboard remains full and developing down in “The Old Pueblo”. Rising junior guard Allonzo Trier could flourish in a more featured role, while swingman Rawle Alkins is a star players-in-waiting, simply holding out for his moment. Add a talent like DeAndre Ayton, the #1 center in the 2017 class, to the fold and at the end of the day, Sean Miller could be back in that Elite Eight conversation once again.
14. SMU Mustangs
Like most of the other teams on this list, SMU’s next-season prospectus relies heavily on star forward Semi Ojeleye, who was the heart-and-soul (and best player) of a Mustangs’ team that pieced together an impressive 30-5 campaign. With Ojeleye, excitable guard Shake Milton and rangy swingman Jarrey Foster, SMU can be all kinds of good in the AAC. Without him, Tim Jankovich may have to dig deep into his coaching bag of tricks.
15. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Richard Pitino went from the hot-seat to Big Ten Coach of the Year in just one season and heading into the 2017-2018 campaign, his program looks more headed for another 20+ wins than they do towards the conference cellar. Nate Mason leads a likeable returning group, who also adds New York City point guard Isaiah Washington to the squad. That’s a name you’ll want to remember people.
16. Oregon Ducks
The obvious case and point applies to Oregon as well, as if lead playmaker Dillon Brooks and bruising forward Jordan Bell return, the Ducks will bring back both the conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year to add to a core which only loses Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis and adds five-star recruit, Troy Brown Jr.. However, if Brooks and Bell both go, March Madness-hero Tyler Dorsey and rising guard Payton Pritchard may be asked to do too much, too soon.
17. Saint Mary’s Gaels
Randy Bennett likes to win and he does a whole lot of it at Saint Mary’s, which is the prime reason his name was firmly in the mix of a handful of coaching searches in the early spring. Yet, with Bennett looking like he’ll stay in sunny Moraga at least for now, Saint Mary’s can now look forward to working on their follow-up season to this past year’s 28-4 outing. Bennett will lose point guard Joe Rahon and big man Dane Pineau but he’ll hold on to his top three leading scorers and a steady culture of winning. It’s just about beating Gonzaga now for the Gaels, just as much as it’s ever been.
18. TCU Horned Frogs
This past season’s NIT Champions, head coach Jamie Dixon made some huge strides during his first season at his alma mater and in year two, he’ll likely return to his old stomping grounds in the NCAA Tournament. Dixon brings back his top six scorers from a team that won 24 games and he boasts two dynamite talents in his backcourt, between Alex Robinson and Jaylen Fisher. Forward Vladimir Brodziansky’s development through another season will be key as well.
19. USC Trojans
Somehow teams from this spot on became my “reach picks” in the Top 25 and it starts with USC, who are the ultimate bloom-or-bust depth chart headed into next season. Andy Enfield has become a bit accustomed to players “coming and going” at a rapid rate in the off-season and this one could be the calm or the storm for the Trojans. He’ll need some key pieces to return, to guide some talented youth being added to the program.
20. Cincinnati Bearcats
Culture. Culture. Culture. Everything that Mick Cronin does at Cincinnati comes from his effortless building of culture within the program, that has now pulled off seven straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats will play defense, be physical, rough you up and send you home hurting but they also play offense now in the Queen City. Expect Cincinnati to go nowhere.
21. Nevada Wolfpack
Step 1: Keep Eric Musselman around. Step 2: Let him work his magic on this talented group. Musselman could boast a line-up of four serious transfers, in Purdue’s Kendall Stephens, North Carolina State’s Caleb and Cody Martin and Iowa State’s Hallice Cooke, who would bring the firepower needed to help out Lindsey Drew and Cameron Oliver. Nevada should not only be considered Mountain West favorites but this team also has intriguing Sweet Sixteen potential.
22. Butler Bulldogs
Another culture pick, Butler has gone through three head coaches and a countless barrage of quirky talents and nothing much has changed for the Bulldogs except culture always winning out. It’s that type of consistency in their approach which makes the losses of Tyler Lewis and Andrew Chrabasz seem a bit less insurmountable. However, it may take a month or two for this Butler group to pull it all together.
23. Oklahoma Sooners
After winning just five Big 12 games during the 2016-2017 campaign, Oklahoma will regroup next season with a bulk of returning talent across the board. Lon Kruger adds a program-changing player in freshman Trae Young and a unique talent in Finnish seven-footer Hannes Polla to the mix, while only losing veteran guard Jordan Woodard. The Sooners should be vastly improved in what could be an even more brutal Big 12.
24. UCLA Bruins
Kris Wilkes. Jaylen Hands. Cody Riley. Jalen Hill. Chris Smith. LiAngelo Ball. You might as well learn the names now as UCLA will look completely different next season, with their new batch of rookies replacing last season’s transcendent group. Like their cross-town rivals in USC, the Bruins will be a “flourish or flop” unit this winter.
25. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
I’d be hard-pressed to pick against Mike Brey in anything ever, which is one of the reasons the Fighting Irish snagged the last spot in the Top 25 over some other deserving programs. Bonzie Colson will keep doing his thing as Notre Dame’s fearless competitor, just as another round of tough guards and sharpshooters fill in the spots around him.
The Next Ten
26. Alabama: This could be the year things finally come together for Avery Johnson at Alabama. Collin Sexton is the prime-time recruit he was waiting for and the Tide have enough talent for once. The pressure is all on him now to make it all work.
27. BYU: Probably a team who will sneak into pre-season Top 25’s as the season nears, BYU could turn the WCC into a three-horse race once again. The Cougars should bring back their top five scorers, if forward Eric Mika stays put.
28. Creighton: The Bluejays could definitely use standout freshman forward Justin Patton’s services back on campus next season, as star guard Marcus Foster has already announced he’ll return.
29. Miami (FL): Miami’s consistency level will need to sharply increase but the Hurricanes have the pieces to get there. Adding a big-time freshman like Lonnie Walker to the roster keeps them an upper-level ACC team.
30. Northwestern: After 79 years of not dancing at all, Northwestern has a strong case for back-to-back NCAA Tournament bids in 2017-2018. Chris Collins and company will need to see their opening in a fluid Big Ten race.
31. Baylor: The ultimate enigma of the Big 12, Scott Drew has a wild roster down in Waco who could shock the conference next season, regardless of if Johnathan Motley goes to the NBA or not. Filling team roles and individual development will prove this team’s worth.
32. Michigan: Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin are gone and D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner still have pro decisions to make but John Beilein can make something of this team in due time. Adding Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews can only help.
33. Virginia Tech: An energetic and accomplished coach like Buzz Williams waits for the type of seasons when he returns all five of his starters from the previous campaign. The Hokies have upper-tier potential in the ACC.
34. Seton Hall: Seton Hall could have the culminating year of their now-famous New York recruiting haul, if the band doesn’t break up before the final tour. With them all back in the mix, Kevin Willard has the pieces for his third straight trip to the big dance.
35. Oregon State: The Beavers will have as strong of a starting five as any team in the conference, if forward Drew Eubanks and Stephen Thompson Jr. don’t fool around with their draft decisions. Also, expect freshman Ethan Thompson to make a strong case for Pac-12 Rookie of the Year.